Although the accusation "sophomore slump" is often unfair, and never truly describes what's happening in a less energetic second album, it does point to a curiously consistent phenomenon. I'm hesitant to apply it to the Invisible Cities' second album, Houses Shine Like Teeth, but if I do, maybe it'll help illuminate some of the dynamics in this messy, charged, and puzzling collection.
Their first, Watertown, was straightforward: each song a compact burst of mood and melody; the whole exemplifying the band's considerable range. It was the perfect first album: it sounded like the band sounds, it advocated for your interest in them, it was exactly what you want in hand when trying to woo new audiences.
Houses comes five years later, so it's not suffering from the lack of time that causes weak second albums; yet it still feels like a random collection somewhat hurried together. The most accessible songs, falling in the first half of the 15 tracks, still demonstrate Han and Sadie's songwriting chops in their confident melodies and changes. But the import of each is somehow muddied: emotion and mood aren't clearly communicated; quirky and confusing lyrics tease, but don't help. Somehow, the music obscures, rather than explicates, its own sound.
But I don't think they've given themselves enough rope to hang themselves with, either (the other sophomore slump rationalization). The songs are tightly produced, and there's little self-indulgence here. Instead, the muddiness seems churned up by the conceptualization of the songs themselves. The artists seem to want to push their basic song structure farther than the typical song wants to be pushed. Yet this yields as much ambiguity as complexity.
They appear to recognize this in the second half, where the tracks depart somewhat from traditional structure and abandon strict accessibility. Starting with "Oh Drone" -- a friendly, Velvet Undergroundish nod-off without the heroin -- the pieces start playing with feedback, repetition, wall-of-sound effects, or combinations. But again, not enough rope: only one of these "experiments" breaches the five-minute mark, and they all keep a retaining wall. Nothing is overwhelmed by floods of anything.
And this may be the problem. Watertown was characterized by tightness and control. The Cities' instinct to let go of the benefits of high structure is sound; you can't evolve without creating a lot of evolutionary loose ends. But they're still unwilling to let go of that tight control: if a song must experiment, it will experiment well; if a song must be dissonant, it will be stringently dissonant. I don't mean to say that they must be onanistic, long-winded, or sloppy in order to progress. But they do have to "let go" in some way that they haven't quite managed to in Houses Shine Like Teeth.
Still, once the third, fourth and fifth albums are in (let them not each take five years!), the platinum records on the wall and their wikipedia page full of obviously fan-written glow, I think Houses will stand as a transition from a satisfying quirky pop-rock phase into something amazing. Out of context it is eminently listenable, and no one will have any difficulty finding a favorite track, although everyone's favorite will be different.
Houses Shine Like Teeth is available on the band's website store in download or CD form, starting April 15. The first 500 downloaders get the album for free (!) and regardless of when and how you buy, if you purchase it directly from the band, you'll get a bonus downloadable mixtape of songs from the band's favorite indie artists.